Movie Review: No Strings Attached
By Matthew Huntley
January 31, 2011

If I don't save his life, will you go out with me?

When it comes to abiding by a formula, romantic comedy is the most dependable genre in Hollywood. Its formula has proven time and again to be successful, no matter how trite or predictable. So when critics review a romantic comedy, they simply have to buck up and accept that certain conventions are going to be in place and hope the characters still manage to sell it. If the movie should stray from convention and try to be inventive and original, it would be a pleasant surprise, but it wouldn’t be expected.

No Strings Attached doesn’t have many surprises, but it is pleasant. It adheres to the age-old premise of two platonic friends suddenly discovering they can be “more” than friends. How many times have we seen this setup or a slight variation of it? Make a list of romantic comedies and take your pick - odds are one of them follows this plot in one form or another.

Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) are two friends who bump into each other every five to ten years. They first meet at summer camp, where Adam asks Emma for sexual favors. They reunite in college and again in their 20s, when Emma is a doctor and Adam an aspiring television writer. With little time or interest in pursuing a relationship, they decide to become sex friends. There are ground rules: no fighting, no jealousy and no snuggling. They also can’t expect anything from each other. In other words, there are no strings attached.

I don’t have to tell you that one of them eventually cracks and ends up falling for the other. That goes without saying. Who that is, I’ll leave for you to discover, because the ensuing drama and emotion do a competent job of holding our interest.

So now that you know how the movie is generally going to play out (as if there was any doubt), is it worth seeing? Surprisingly, yes. For starters, the characters are genuinely sweet and likable and the movie, being a romantic comedy and all, remains relatively honest without succumbing to all the usual dumb and annoying idiot plot devices that typically plague the genre. Don’t get me wrong - there are a few, like the classic jerk character who tries to one up the hero; or the moment of doubt when it seems like the characters won’t live happily ever after; and the obligatory scene where a character races against time to declare their love for another.

The broad strokes of the formula are all there, but in spite of them, I enjoyed listening to the characters talk because a lot of what they said - about sex, relationships, ambitions - made sense, not only in their situation but to life in general. It was refreshing to find them being so open and honest with each other. That includes Kevin Kline as Adam’s famous actor-father, who reveals a secret to Adam that would urge any son to punch his father in the gut. The point is the characters don’t beat around the bush, neither with each other nor with the audience. As a result, we feel like we’re with them instead of ahead of them, which makes them more identifiable. Romantic comedies usually make it so obvious what decisions the characters should make; here, it’s not so obvious.

Perhaps the laws of human nature prevent two people from being casual sex friends for too long, just as the rules of Hollywood prevent us from thinking No Strings Attached could be anything more than a generic romantic comedy. I’m not sure about the first rule, but I can say No Strings Attached, as a generic romantic comedy, made me laugh and I found myself engaged in the conflict enough to care about Emma and Adam and hope for their happiness, which, I suppose, is the goal of the movie. Believe it or not, there came a point when I didn’t know how it was going to end. For that moment, it felt good to be unsure.

How it ends, I won’t reveal, but all in all, the movie is pleasant, funny and charming, and Portman and Kutcher are a good on-screen pair with real chemistry. Director Ivan Reitman brings a nice balance to the picture as a romance, screwball comedy and light drama. In the end, it doesn’t stray far enough from its genre’s roots to be considered special, but it goes a respectable distance so we at least enjoy ourselves.